Tag: Art History

Rendez-Vous with Art: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Art

The pleasures and pitfalls of art

Philippe de Montebello was the longest-serving Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1977-2008). Martin Gayford was an acclaimed art critic. Their book, Rendez-Vous with Art, is structured around the conversations they had in churches, museums, and art galleries around the world. It’s an intimate look into the pleasures and pitfalls of art.

Starting with a fragment that’s left of the face of an Egyptian woman who lived 3,000 years ago, de Montebello and Gayford’s book confronts the elusive questions: how and why do we look at art? That is a large subject we will leave you to explore, but there are two parts of this book we wish to draw your attention to.

WE CAN NEVER STEP IN THE SAME RIVER TWICE

“If,” they write, “we stand in front of a work of art twice, at least one party — the viewer or the object — will be transformed on the second occasion. Works of art mutate through time, albeit slowly, as they are cleaned or ‘conserved’, or as their constituent materials age.”

As far as the object, Van Gogh’s Irises and Roses collection comes to mind. Van Gogh employed bright pigments in a way that encouraged them to lose their vibrancy over time, anticipating “time will only soften them too much.” The contrast between the originals and those we witness today is stark — color like all living organisms fades over time.

But even more important than the physical evolution of pieces are the ones happening internal to us.

Gayford writes:

Inevitably, we all inhabit a world of dissolving perspectives and ever-shifting views. The present is always moving, so from that vantage point the past constantly changes in appearance. That is on the grand, historical scale; but the same is true of our personal encounters with art, from the day to day. You can stand in front of Velazquez’s Las Meninas a thousand times, and every time it will be different because you will be altered: tired or full of energy, or dissimilar from your previous self in a multitude of ways.

… Our idea was to make a book that was neither art history not art criticism but an experiment in shared appreciation. It is, in other words, an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art: what it feels like on a particular occasion, which is of course the only way any of us can ever look at anything.

This brings to mind the famous fragment of Heraclitus: “You cannot step in the same river twice.”

HOW TO LOOK AT ART

There is undeniably a curatorial aspect to art. De Montebello notes that contrast between addition and subtraction when it comes to selection.  He writes:

In Europe, one often has a sense that a selection has been made by paring down a lot of inherited dynastic objects or spoils of colonization or war. Then a curatorial mind has built on that base. In the USA, you start ab initio. American museums large and small tend to be encyclopedic, whether you are in Toledo, Minneapolis, or elsewhere, because they started from nothing, and from the premise that they’d like to buy a little bit of everything: a couple of Chinese things, a few medieval things, and so on.

While there are differences in what’s on display at American museums, de Montebello also alludes to the “sameness in their governing principles and the criteria used for acquisitions.” The great museums, he argues, “are organisms, constantly changing, and mainly expanding. The collections grow, move in new directions, and, on rare occasion, get sold off. The buildings are adapted and frequently enlarged.” A visit to a museum in itself is part of the learning process.

De Montebello writes:

I have found that when I have forced myself — often with the help of curators — to look at things about which I was indifferent or that even repelled me, I discovered that, with a little knowledge, what had been hidden from me became manifest. I’ll give you an example: for a long time I approached galleries of Greek vases with a sense of dread; whether black- or red-figured, the vases all looked alike to me. Museums were often culpable as they tended to show far too many. So I’d walk into one of those rooms, take one look and dash for the exit. But a curator at the Met, Joan Mertens, told me once to go to the vitrines where only fragments, or shards, were shown. She stood beside me and said, look at one of them as if it were a drawing on paper.

I found I was able to look at it this way, forgetting that it was a fragment of a vessel, a three-dimensional utilitarian object. I could focus on the drawing itself, the line, the composition, and how marvellous it was. But the epiphany came when I was able to put surface decoration and vessel shape together, and look at them as one. It is the only correct way, incidentally.

Fragments are a representation of the whole—to appreciate them we have to engage beyond the instant gratification we so often seek. It often takes us repressing our ego and asking for help to truly see a piece or an exhibit, much like an adult who takes classes to appreciate Shakespeare.

De Montebello concludes:

[O]ne can be taught, and needs to taught, how to look, how to push aside one’s prejudices, one’s overly hasty negative reactions. For me, it was a long learning process, and I have to imagine that for the majority of visitors it can’t be easy either. …  The appreciation of art requires an engagement that is wholly different from the instant gratification provided by most popular forms of popular culture, and museums have a responsibility to help visitors achieve this.

This strikes a familiar note, as we have often called Farnam Street “curated interestingness” for the very same reason: We feel it’s our job to help you find and appreciate the best wisdom the world has to offer.

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Rendez-Vous with Art adds to our expanding library on art, sitting next to The Power of Art and The Story of Art.

The Notebooks of Paul Klee

“Ingres is said to have created an artistic order out of rest; I should like to create an order from feeling and, going still further, from motion.”

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Paul Klee was a painter who wrote extensively about color theory. His lectures, Writings on Form and Design Theory, taught at the German Bauhaus school of art in the 1920s, were published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks. They are considered as important to modern art as Leonardo da Vinci’s A Treatise on Painting was for the Renaissance.

Giulio Carlo Argan, in the Preface to the first volume of Klee’s notebooks, writes:

The writings which compose Paul Klee’s theory of form production and pictorial form have the same importance and the same meaning for modern art as had Leonardo’s writings which composed his theory of painting for Renaissance art. Like the latter, they do not constitute a true and proper treatise, that is to say a collection of stylistic and technical rules, but are the result of an introspective analysis which the artist engages in during his work and in the light of the experience of reality which comes to him in the course of his work. This analysis which accompanies and controls the formation of a work of art is a necessary component of the artistic process, the aim and the finality of which are brought to light by it …

Herbert Read called the collection “the most complete presentation of the principles of design ever made by a modern artist – it constitutes the Principia Aesthetica of a new era of art, in which Klee occupies a position comparable to Newton’s in the realm of physics.”

And now, these astonishingly beautiful works of art are available online (Volume 1: The Thinking Eye (PDF, 23 Megabytes), Volume 2: The Nature of Nature (PDF, 43 MBS))

If you’re like me, prepare to spend the rest of your day in this treasure trove of amazingness.

Paul Klee 1
Source: Paul Klee Notebooks
Paul Klee 2
Source: Paul Klee Notebooks
Paul Klee 3
Source: Paul Klee Notebooks
Paul Klee 4
Source: Paul Klee Notebooks
Paul Klee 5
Source: Paul Klee Notebooks
Paul Klee 6
Source: Paul Klee Notebooks
Paul Klee 7
Source: Paul Klee Notebooks

 

Still curious? The notebooks make an excellent addition to your budding art library.

Rembrandt — The Power of Art

You’re a painter. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you: neglect, derision, disgrace? Worse than all these misfortunes is to have to mutilate your masterpiece, the bravest thing you’ve ever tried. That’s what happened to Rembrandt in 1662.

That’s how Simon Schama introduces us to Rembrandt in his amazing book: The Power of Art.

20 years before, when Rembrandt was in his 30s, Amsterdam couldn’t get enough of the young master. “Over and over he had confounded expectations, and expectations adjusted accordingly to whatever it was he had done.” He was on top of the world.

By 1660, when Rembrandt was in his 50s, he

was living in a modest dwelling on the Rozengracht, opposite a pleasure garden. There were drunks in the street, knife fights on the corner. The tongue-clickers now saw him as someone from whom things had called steeply away: credit, property, the benisons of the mighty. God did not distribute fortune idly, so the truisms of the pious had it. Thus, in some fashion, Rembrandt’s fall from grace must have been ordained as a caution against sinful pride.

But then a lucky break. The Amsterdam elite desired a monumental history painting for their new town hall. Govert Flinck, their first choice for the job, unexpectedly died leaving Rembrandt with an opportunity to redeem himself and change everything.

The commission would be one of a series of paintings illustrating the history of the Dutch.

Together the cycle of histories would remind Amsterdammers that, while they were not themselves masters of an empire, their history began with an act of virtuous insurrection against the arrogance of the Roman Empire.

Rembrandt’s work would be the most important. He would be painting the Batavian leader Claudius Civilis at “the very moment of swearing his brethren to pledge their lives to the liberty of the Fatherland.” If he succeeded, Rembrandt would clear his name and return to prosperity.

The result was something no one expected and for the ruined painter it was a massive gamble.

Everyone knew about Rembrandt’s ruffian audacity; his regrettable imperviousness to the niceties of decorum, personal and professional. But with all those reservations, the civic worthies must still have been unprepared for what they got from his hand.

Wanting to save face, the worthies decided that letting it hang in the hall was better than leaving a vacancy where the masterpiece belonged. However, a few months later they changed their mind. “It’s confrontational coarseness” was too much and they ordered it removed, rolled up, and sent back to the artist. Rembrandt didn’t receive a penny for his work. Someone else, someone predictable, was hired to fill the space. They knocked off a painting in record time. “It might have been the worst painting on public display anywhere in the Netherlands. But no one complained.”

If Rembrandt wanted to rescue something from his masterpiece he would have to cut it down from the enormous arched space it was designed for into something for a residential buyer. So the cutting began.

You can learn more about Rembrandt by watching this Power of Art BBC series .

Still curious? Pick up a copy of Simon Schama’s, The Power of Art, or watch the excellent BBC series.

Related:
Bernini — The Power of Art
Caravaggio — The Power of Art

The Château de Versailles: From The Seat of Power to The Museum Of The History of France

The Palace of Versailles, also know as The Château de Versailles, began as King Louis XIII’s hunting lodge. It is now considered one of the most beautiful achievements of 18th-century French art.

The son of King Louis XIII, Louis XIV, expanded the palace and moved the government and the court to Versailles in 1682. The improvements continued until the French Revolution, when the château “lost its standing as the official seat of power.” In the 19th century the château became the Museum of the history of France.

Thanks to the Google Cultural Institute, we can now tour these amazing grounds.

Versailles after the French Revolution

From gardens to Trianon palaces

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Still curious? Check out the official Château de Versailles website. If you use Google’s browser, Chrome, you can also take an interactive stroll around the palace.